On This Day – 11 August 1796 Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin prepares to receive its first prisoners


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It’s such a huge tourist attraction today that it’s quite shocking to realise there were proposals as recently as the 1950s to demolish much of it. But Kilmainham Gaol survived intact to play a huge part in the current decade of centenaries.

It opened in 1796 and even then, it was a grim place, housing men, women, and children as young as twelve. Some were held there prior to transportation to Australia, others were lodged in the prison before their executions, some served many years there in dreadful conditions, often sharing a cell with up to four others.

Almost every self-respecting nationalist, including some far removed from revolutionary politics, spent a spell at their Majesties’ pleasure in Kilmainham.  A number did so prior to being hanged or shot. The list of guests constitutes a distinguished club, Henry Joy McCracken, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.

Attached to the Gaol was a magistrates’ court where cases would be despatched, or, if a serious crime was involved, the preliminary process leading to indictment would take place. It was here that the alleged killers of the Chief Secretary, Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in Phoenix Park in 1882—the so-called Invincibles—appeared for remand hearings before being committed to Green Street court for trial. And it was here that they first realised the game was up, when one of their number, James Carey, presented himself as a prosecution witness. He had opted to turn state’s evidence to save his own skin. His first appearance at Kilmainham Magistrates’ Court was greeted with roars of rage from the dock. A reporter observed that one of the accused, Joe Brady:

 

Glared at him and stretched forward towards him [had he] been able to reach him, I believe he would have been torn to pieces, for Brady was a powerful young fellow, and for the moment he was for all the world like a tiger on the spring.

 

The prisoners were returned to their cells and a few weeks later Carey’s evidence sent five of them to the hangman, a seasoned veteran named William Marwood. His customary advice to his victims before they met their maker was, ‘Now then, hold your head back and you’ll die easy’. They were all executed in the Kilmainham Prison Yard, and their bodies were interred under the scaffold erected to hang them.

Three decades later it was the turn of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen were executed there over a nine-day period in May. The first to die, on 3 May, were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. They faced firing squads of twelve British soldiers, mostly drawn from the Sherwood Foresters, who had been badly cut up on Mount Street Bridge the previous week. There was little regard to sensitivities on either side. No Catholic priest was allowed to be present to minister to the prisoners, and the same firing squad—consisting mainly of young recruits—was expected to execute all three men. A number of female prisoners, including Countess Markievicz, were rudely awoken by the volleys from the stone-breakers’ yard.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State the prison continued to be used during the Civil War. Around six-hundred Republican prisoners were incarcerated there, many of them women. One of the last to be released was Eamon de Valera.

The prison was closed by the Free State government in 1929, and might well have been demolished in the 1930s, except it was deemed too expensive to do so. The work of organisations, like the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, ensured that it was eventually taken over by the Office of Public Works, and became one of the most visited historical sites in Dublin.

It has also been a useful location for a number of films. These include the adaptation of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, The Quare Fellow, as well as the Michael Caine film The Italian Job, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Collins himself was fortunate, he never actually served time there.

Kilmainham Gaol was finally completed and prepared to accept its first prisoners two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day November 25th 
1764  – Birth of Henry Sirr

 

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Turncoat, informer, abuser of power, or dedicated public servant – it all depends on your political perspective when it comes to Major Henry Sirr. Let’s face it, if you were a member of the United Irishmen you probably wouldn’t have liked him very much. He was to that revolutionary organisation what Eliot Ness was to Al Capone.

Henry Sirr was a police chief extraordinaire. He dedicated his life to catching bad guys for two decades at the turn of the 18th century. Well, a lot of his life anyway. He was also a wine merchant. That would be a bit like Garda Commissioner Noreen O’Sullivan owning a few pubs on the side.

Sirr served in the British Army from 1778-1791 where one of his military acquaintances was a certain Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Hold that particular thought for just a few minutes.

In 1796 he became Acting Town Major of the city of Dublin – effectively Chief of the City’s police force. He became a member of the Orange Order and was permanently appointed to his new role in 1798 – a significant year I’m sure you’ll agree. It was certainly significant for Sirr and for his relentless pursuit of the revolutionary element of the Society of United Irishmen, who were planning a rebellion for that year. Sirr appears to have been well-informed by a network of spies about the activities of the leading lights of the United Irishmen. So much so that he caught almost the entire committee of the Leinster Branch at a covert meeting on 12 March 1798 in the house of the woollen merchant Oliver Bond. The only man he missed was his old Army colleague Lord Edward Fitzgerald, but he atoned for that oversight on 19 May when he shot and killed Fitzgerald after the aristocrat had tried to stab him to avoid arrest. A few days later he also caught the radical Sheares brothers in two different houses on the same day, this may have given rise to his reputation for bi-location.

Five years later Sirr added to his lustre – assuming you were a major fan of Dublin Castle – by apprehending the young rebel leader Robert Emmet, a month after his ill-starred Dublin rising. He also burst into the home of the eminent barrister John Philpott Curran in a frustrated attempt to locate correspondence between Emmet and Curran’s daughter Sarah.

Raiding Curran’s house must have given Sirr considerable pleasure as the two men had ‘previous’. In 1802 Curran had represented one John Hevey in the case of Hevey v Sirr . In 1798 Hevey, a well-known Brewer, happened to be in court at the trial of a man named McGuire, being prosecuted for insurgency at the behest of Sirr and being damned by informer evidence. Hevey was familiar with the informer, an unloved and dishonest former employee. He testified to the witness’s total lack of reliability and was believed by the jury. Sirr was suitably enraged at the collapse of his case. He threatened Hevey and three years later delivered on the threat by arresting the brewer. Hevey later sued for assault, battery and false imprisonment. Curran went to town on Sirr, and Hevey duly won damages of £150 – more than £10,000 today. Testifying to Sirr’s lack of popularity bonfires were lit all around the city and church bells were rung when the verdict was announced.

Sirr paid a personal price for his pursuit of the United Irishmen, he escaped at least three assassination attempts, and was forced to move his family home on no less that six occasions before being quartered inside Dublin Castle. A noted collector of antiques and curios he is believed to have obtained and retained copies of every broadside, cartoon or satirical article in which he featured.

Sirr, however, was not a stereotypical central casting villain. He was a deeply religious man who was involved with the wonderfully named Association for Discountenancing Vice. He must have had a low opinion of the morals of Dublin hackney drivers because he could often be found haranguing them. Though he might simply have been objecting to excessive fares or lack of availability. He was also a founder of the Irish Society for Promoting Scriptural Education in the Irish Language. Later in life he became a magistrate, was an admirer of Daniel O’Connell and supported the 1832 political Reform Act which curtailed aristocratic privilege in the House of Commons.

Despite doing the state much service he was never elevated to the peerage. Perhaps the civil authorities and the monarchs of his day felt that he was just a little too prone to the odd bit of abuse of power. Or maybe they felt that someone called Sir Henry Sirr was just too much tautology.

Major Henry Charles Sirr, Dublin Chief of Police in interesting times, was born two hundred and fifty two years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 24.7.1750 Birth of John Philpot Curran, the man who almost became Robert Emmet’s father in law

John Philpot Curran (24 Jul 1750 – 14 Oct 1817) Irish orator, politician and wit; Black and White Illustration;

John Philpot Curran (b.24 Jul 1750 )

On the morning of his 53rd birthday the leading Irish barrister of his day, John Philpot Curran, would have received news of serious disturbances in the city of Dublin. He would have been horrified to learn of the brutal death of his friend Lord Kilwarden, dragged from his coach along with his nephew and daughter and stabbed repeatedly with pikes.

However the violence of 23rd July 1803 was to come even closer to home for Curran. He would quickly have learned that it was no angry and leaderless mob that had murdered Kilwarden. It was the last throw of the dice of the United Irishmen, supposedly suppressed viciously five years earlier, in a rebellion led by a young Dublin Protestant, Robert Emmet. That name would come to haunt Curran.

John Philpot Curran was one of the most celebrated Irish public figures of his day. He was a politician, having been a member of the Irish parliament for three different constituencies. He was probably the most capable member of the Irish bar and had, in 1798, ably but futilely defended many of the leaders of the United Irishmen’s rebellion. His early career as a barrister had been marred by a serious stammer that had earned him the unenviable nickname ‘Stuttering Jack Curran’. But he had conquered his disability, apparently by spending hours reciting Shakespeare in front of a mirror.

He was also a duellist, having fought up to half a dozen opponents and survived.

One of those encounters highlights his penchant for ‘lost causes’ or, at least, his affiliation to the underdog. In 1780 Curran, himself a wealthy and well-connected Protestant, took on the case of an elderly Catholic priest, Father Neale, who had fallen foul of a distinctly obnoxious aristocrat, Lord Doneraile. The priest had criticized the brother of Doneraile’s mistress for maintaining an adulterous relationship and Doneraile, as you did if you were called– I kid you not – St.Leger St.Leger (his parents must have been extremely attached to the family name) had horsewhipped Father Neale for his croppy effrontery. St.Leger (squared) did not anticipate a jury of his peers deciding to punish him. But he reckoned without Curran’s powers of persuasion. The young advocate’s arguments coaxed the jury into awarding the horsewhipped priest 30 guineas and an affronted Doneraile challenged Curran to a duel. He fired and missed, Curran walked away without shooting.

While Curran may have opposed the Act of Union and defended United Irishmen his tolerance did not extend as far as permitting a relationship to form between his daughter Sarah and Robert Emmet. However, after the capture of the young rebel in the wake of his abortive coup Curran, typically, agreed to defend Emmet. He was unaware, however, of the existence of a correspondence between his client and his daughter. When the authorities came to search his house and he was apprised of the existence of letters between the young rebel and his youngest daughter he threw up the brief. Crucially he was replaced as defence counsel by the Crown’s most valuable intelligence asset in Dublin, the traitorous United Irishman Leonard McNally.

Curran was famous as a wit and phrasemaker. It may well have been he, rather than Edmund Burke, who uttered the immortal line ‘evil prospers when good men do nothing’. He said of an enemy that ‘his smile is like the silver plate on a coffin’. Marx once advised Engels to read Curran’s speeches. In an encounter with the infamous Irish hanging judge, Lord Norbury, the justice inquired of Curran if a particular piece of meat was ‘hung-beef’ to which Curran responded acidly ‘Do try it my Lord, then it is sure to be.’

In his private life he was often unhappy, he disowned his daughter Sarah and later his wife, also called Sarah and with whom he had nine children, ran off with a Protestant rector whom Curran sued for criminal conversation. But as a public figure Curran was a colossus who spanned the period between Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell and was, in many ways, the equal of both.

John Philpot Curran, scholar, poet, wit, barrister, politician, and humanitarian, was born 265 years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – Drivetime – 13.2.1820 – Death of the informer Leonard McNally

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There are spies, there are informers, there are traitors, and then there is Leonard McNally. He was one of the most effective and enduring British spies in the ranks of an Irish revolutionary organisation. The unlucky, or careless, rebels were the United Irishmen, the men of 1798.

McNally, a barrister and playwright, was actually a prominent and radical member of the United Irishmen. He was eager for the organisation to accept military assistance from revolutionary France. But when William Jackson, an agent of the French government, was arrested in Ireland in 1794, McNally, rather than wait to be shopped for treason by Jackson, took a more pro-active course and offered his services to the Crown in exchange for not being hanged, drawn and quartered. Given what actually happens to someone who is hanged drawn and quartered he might well be forgiven for this initial capitulation. But the fact that he was still providing intelligence to Dublin Castle a quarter of a century later suggests that it had become more about remuneration than self-preservation.

After the 1798 rebellion McNally defended many United Irishmen charged with involvement in the abortive insurrection. He didn’t win a single case. It could have been because his clients were guilty to begin with, or because he was fiendishly unlucky. But his winless streak was more likely to have been related to the fact that he was passing information on his clients to the prosecution. Not really the done thing for a defence attorney I’m sure you’ll agree.

Among the men he defended were William Jackson, Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and, in 1803, Robert Emmet. So, were there an Irish Pantheon he would probably have contributed to the presence of about half the occupants. In the case of Emmet he advised the Crown that his client would enter no defence and allow cross examination of no witnesses on his behalf, as long as they did not misrepresent the facts. So the trial would be a walkover for the prosecution and Dublin Castle didn’t even have to bother fabricating evidence that might come back to haunt them in court.

After 1803 you’d have thought McNally would have quietly and gracefully retired. But a £200 bonus, on top of his hefty pension of £300, ensured that ‘JW’, the code name by which he was known to his spymasters, stayed in business until his death in 1820.

In a doubtlessly fruitless effort to mitigate McNally’s evil reputation it should be pointed out that he was also a successful playwright and librettist. One of his songs, The Lass of Richmond Hill, became a huge hit in its day, 1789, and a favourite of King George III, the one who had occasional bouts of madness. It was written about McNally’s first wife Frances and describes her as ‘a rose without a thorn’.

In one of those wonderful ironies for which a fiction writer would be pilloried were it to appear in a novel, a legal treatise, written by McNally the year before his betrayal of Robert Emmet, was pivotal in the definition of the principle of guilt being ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ before conviction.

His espionage activities did not become apparent until after his death when his son sought to have the payment of his pension continued post mortem. When the Lord Lieutenant inquired as to why a pension had been paid to such an ardent nationalist, the truth began to emerge.

Leonard McNally, barrister, playwright, serial informer and a rose with many thorns, died 195 years ago, on this day.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND ROBERT EMMET – www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory

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On this day – 20 September, 1803

They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere 269 words and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of 3,000 words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The earlier speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the later by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet within eighteen months.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the bizarre connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.

Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs and both have become elements of two distinct Pantheons. Emmet, a post- Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin by making the single most famous, effective and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four year American Civil War (or the War Between the States if you happen to be a southerner). His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity. Ironically, the principal speaker on the day was Edward Everett, an unsuccessful Vice Presidential candidate in 1860. His speech was a whopping two hours long. In central Pennsylvania. Outdoors. In November.

Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for High Treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.

‘Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.’

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetry at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the decisive battle four and half months earlier, is more famous for its iconic opening line  – ‘Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Emmet’s speech marked the death of one man – Lincoln’s grieved at the sacrifice of thousands. They do, however, have one thing in common. No one is agreed on what exactly was said. There are five extant versions of the Gettysburg address and as many of Emmet’s Speech from the Dock.

But did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short speech in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.

More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856 the explorer and ‘pathfinder’ John C. Fremont was chosen as the party’s Presidential nominee. Soundly defeated by William L. Dayton for the Vice Presidential slot was Abraham Lincoln. The Chairman and keynote speaker at the Convention was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born son of Thomas Addis Emmet (United Irishman and 1798 revolutionary) and nephew of his celebrated namesake. In his speech Emmet attacked the rival Democratic Party and how its newly chosen standard bearer, James Buchanan, had proven himself to be aligned with slave interests.

In February, 1865 Lincoln, who had been forced to grapple with many grave moral dilemmas during the Civil War, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury. The identity of the petitioner alone would have been enough for lesser men to have arbitrarily confirmed the sentence. In January, 1863, Saulsbury had referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man, the weakest that I ever knew in a high place.’

Saulsbury was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote –  “You know I am no political friend of yours. You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration . . . All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man, (Saml B. Davis) unassisted by Counsel, compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.”

Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.

In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, friend of Dorothy Parker and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It starred Raymond Massey, who later reprised the role in the 1940 film version directed by James Cromwell. Massey, after playing the role 472 times on Broadway, seemed to take on the form and characteristics of Lincoln. He spoke and dressed like him. This caused his friend, the playwright George S. Kaufmann, to observe that ‘Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.’  The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.

Emmet  would have been proud of the peroration of his celebrated acolyte – ‘ . . we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

Robert Emmet, died on a scaffold in Thomas Street in Dublin 210 years ago, on this day